Salem families push back on closure of central school program for deaf students

A program serving deaf middle and high school students from across the Salem area for over a decade is closing, prompting litigation from families who say neighborhood schools can’t meet their deaf children’s education needs.

The Salem-Keizer School District and Willamette Education Service District for years ran a central program at Crossler Middle School and Sprague High School where deaf and hard of hearing students learned in a community while attending both general and special education classes. 

The program was available to students in Marion, Polk and Yamhill counties, with about 35 students enrolled according to WESD.

But officials of both districts decided in the spring to close the program, citing declining enrollment and saying neighborhood schools can provide the services students need.

“Over the last several years, these classrooms have seen declining placements from districts across the counties. At the same time, many districts, including SKPS, have increased support in neighborhood schools for deaf or hard of hearing students and have successfully met their needs without busing students to another school or district,” Salem-Keizer School District spokesman Aaron Harada said in an email.

Most local deaf students don’t attend the central program. WESD provides services to 284 deaf and hard of hearing students across the three counties, including 140 in the Salem-Keizer district.

Michael Clark, a spokesman for the education service district, said over time, more families who live outside Salem have opted to send their kids to neighborhood schools, and the district can better serve those students through a decentralized program.

He said the education service district is providing the same staffing to support students across the three counties.

But families who have spent years attending the central site say it’s not possible to give students the same level of support by spreading deaf services across dozens of schools.

Two families filed due process complaints with the Oregon Department of Education alleging the program closure denies their deaf students a free and appropriate public education — a right guaranteed in federal special education law.

Such complaints are heard by the state Office of Administrative Hearings, an independent state agency that employs judges who decide administrative matters.

Their complaints say that students will lose the benefit of being educated with other deaf students in a community, and that sending students to neighborhood schools will make services they need, like audio transcription in class, piecemeal and vulnerable to malfunctions that need to be corrected quickly to ensure students don’t miss class time.

An attorney for both families, Anna Moritz of Seattle-based firm Cedar Law PLLC, provided copies of the complaints and the district’s response to Salem Reporter with the family and students’ names redacted.

The parents of one of the students spoke to Salem Reporter on condition of anonymity to preserve their daughter’s privacy. They filed a complaint on their daughter’s behalf April 30, which the district filed a motion to dismiss. That motion is pending a ruling from an administrative law judge.

The family moved to Salem from McMinnville so their daughter would be closer to the central program. They said being educated with deaf peers who can help her when she misses something in class has benefitted her mental health and education immensely.

“She was never singled out, she was never made to feel other,” her mother said.

Families weren’t consulted before the program closure, they said. They were notified by letter in late March and told they could continue attending Crossler or Sprague without centralized deaf services, or return to their neighborhood schools.

Families choosing to remain at Crossler or Sprague would also lose bus transportation.

“It was a very abrupt statement,” the mother said. “It was a little bit just like, ‘You guys are on your own.’”

The parents said many of the families impacted are Hispanic, don’t speak English at home and don’t have the resources to challenge the district.

In a response to the student’s complaint, district attorneys said deaf students would receive the same services at neighborhood schools, like live audio transcription of classes intended for hearing students, and a certain amount of time weekly to meet with a Teacher of the Deaf — a specific job meaning a teacher has training in deaf education.

But the parents said that misses the benefits that come from having experts in deaf education available constantly in one place.

Until now, their daughter could talk to a Teacher of the Deaf briefly during the school day if she missed something in class, ensuring she stays caught up. With students spread across schools, that teacher will rotate between them. 

A deaf student might get the same amount of one-on-one time with a teacher, technically fulfilling special education requirements, but they lose the benefit of being able to ask quick questions or address issues immediately as they come up, the parents said.

In the central program, if their daughter’s audio transcription technology malfunctions, there’s someone on hand to fix it immediately. Deaf students often help one another in class, and won’t be able to do so if they’re spread across schools.

“For a Deaf individual it can be extremely isolating to be among regular hearing peers,” said Moritz, the attorney.

The family said for now, their daughter plans to attend ninth grade at Sprague in the fall. They’re hoping their complaint will force the central program to remain open.

“It’s taken a hit on her mental health quite a bit,” the mother said of her daughter. “She definitely feels the uncertainty of what services will look like in the fall.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.